Persistence is All in a Day's Work

Debut mystery novelist learns to bounce back with her character.

Posted Oct 01, 2010

A Bad Day's Work
A Bad Day's Work by Nora McFarland is a lighthearted debut mystery about a shooter (photographer) at a Bakersfield TV station. While solving a murder, Lilly Hawkins realizes that she has a hard time making friends due to her inadvertently off-putting personality. Not that Lilly and her blunders aren't a hoot to read about. I recently conducted an email interview with McFarland.

Q: It seems to me that characters often don't change very much in the course of a series mystery, though I could be wrong as I don't read that many mysteries. So why did you decide on this psychological change?

You're right. In mystery series that span many books the detectives rarely change. If you look at Miss Marple or Poirot, two of the most successful series of all time, there is a character in each book that falls in love or goes through a major upheaval, but it's never the detective. And it makes perfect sense. How many times can a character recognize hard truths about themselves and change? How many times can a character find true love? At some point it becomes melodramatic and each new revelation diminishes the previous one.

I knew this when I wrote A Bad Day's Work, but I decided to focus on writing the best stand-alone that I could. To do that, and to make it interesting for me, I had to make the story as much about the murder as about Lilly changing.

When I was lucky enough to get a contract for three books, I immediately mapped out what Lilly's arc would be over the trilogy. There's a specific place we're building to and I'm hoping it will be very satisfying to readers who've come on Lilly's journey. I'm not saying there could never be more Lilly Hawkins Mysteries after that, but I think at that point the enjoyment would come more from spending time with characters you love, and less from seeing them change in satisfying ways.

Q: Does Lilly's character owe a lot to your own personal development?

As I was writing the first draft, I kept thinking about my own experiences in the workplace. There are two jobs in particular that I left in unhappy circumstances. I was right each time, but I kept thinking that perhaps I'd mishandled those situations. It's possible to be right, but not smart. This idea kept growing in my mind, that to be successful you have to know which battles to fight and how to head off trouble before it becomes an "I'm right and you're wrong" kind of situation.

Q: After having your manuscript turned down by 47 agents (not a record, by the way), how did you celebrate getting a 3-book deal?

My husband had missed Thanksgiving the previous week because he'd had to work. I'd jokingly told him that I'd cook him a complete Thanksgiving meal if Molly Friedrich, who was reading my full [NOTE: A "full" is the complete manuscript] at the time, called and wanted to be my agent. Two days later, I got the call. I ran out to the grocery store and bought a turkey and all the other ingredients and spent the afternoon cooking. It was a big surprise for him when he got home.

Q: How different is your creative process now that you have that contract?

I have less freedom to walk away when I'm stuck. I really miss that. I worry a lot that the quality will drop off because I can't spend time trying to come up with the perfect solution to whatever problem has arisen. The good news, though, is that I'm a better writer now and get stuck a lot less. Also, I think I do a better job planning, so I have less problems overall.

Q: Why did you go for an MFA at USC's school of cinema and television? Why not creative writing?

I love movies and wanted to be a film director. But in grad school I quickly realized that I hated film production and loved my screenwriting classes. I'd still love to be a screenwriter, but not because it's where the money is. Just like everything else, there's no money in it at all, unless you're very successful. I wrote A Bad Day's Work as a book instead of a screenplay because I felt it was a much better way to tell this particular story. The longer length gave me the freedom to do a lot more with Lilly's character.

Q: Do you still read a lot of mysteries? Have you watched all the wonderful British TV mysteries on DVD available on Netflix?

I've been watching Mystery on PBS since Vincent Price was the host and it was still a separate show from Masterpiece Theater. Mysteries have always been my favorite books, but something odd has happened over the last year. I find that when I'm in very intense writing periods, I can't bear to read anything for fun. I hope it doesn't continue.

Q: What's Georgia like and how did you come to move there? Might that setting figure in a future book?

Georgia is very lush. It amazes me how green and fertile everything is. We live in a neighborhood called Vineville, and if you don't constantly cut back the vines, they take over. There are also very distinct seasons, which I never experienced growing up on the coast of California. We moved here almost five years ago for my husband's work and I do plan to write a series set on the Georgia coast. But I still have one more Lilly Hawkins mystery to write before I even think of starting something else.

Q: You've said that you learned-as-you-went. How did you keep up your motivation? Did you at least get interesting or useful feedback from a few of those (as it turns out) misguided agents?

For me, I guess I'm just crazy. I decided this was what I was going to do, and even though I felt very low during the bad times, I never considered stopping. I'm a little like Lilly that way.

After I completed my first draft I sent it to a friend. She's very smart, likes the same kind of books as me, and is a published writer herself. She loved the narrative momentum of the story, but didn't like the solution to the mystery and didn't like the love story. I took a little bit of time away from the manuscript and when I came back, put everything on the table. There was nothing that couldn't be changed. I ended up altering Lilly's core issues, removing entire characters and replacing them with new ones, and coming up with a new solution to the mystery. The second draft was very different from the first, but it had the same basic story and narrative drive.

I sent this draft out to five or six friends. The feedback I got that time involved much smaller issues. I revised again, but they weren't major changes like new characters. I got almost no feedback from the agents, which was very frustrating. At first I obsessed over each line of the rejection looking for clues to how I could improve my submission. Finally I realized what was obvious--that they were form rejections meant only to convey, "NO."

Q:  On your site, you wrote that you didn't mind being stuck so long as the time wasn't being wasted, that you did home improvement projects during breaks (or blocks) in writing. I'm currently redoing my entire filing system and wonder if that's just pushing it, and pushing myself away from a needed revision.  Did you revise during that 47-agent negative streak?

When I need a fresh perspective, I find that it's very important to occupy my brain with something else for a time. If I'm thinking about the manuscript, even if I'm not working on it, I won't get the benefit from the break.

I didn't query until I thought the manuscript was done. At that point I moved into a different phase where instead of working to improve my manuscript, I worked to improve my query letter and synopsis.  During that time I also began plotting a middle grade mystery and thinking about what to do next if A Bad Day's Work didn't get an agent-which looked likely. For me it was important to be realistic about the odds, but not to let those odds deter me from trying.

* Visit the mystery author's site, and watch a brief video of her and find a reading group guide here.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Susan K. Perry

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